Croatian Journal of Philosophy

Volume 3, Issue 2, 2003

Adele Mercier
Pages 111-124

Are Language Conventions Philosophically Explanatory?
(Or: “It’s Shirt-Buttoning All the Way Down, Ruthl”)

Conventional behavior is behavior engaged in because of, or due to, convention. There are two senses of “due to”: the convention explains my behavior by actually causing it; or the convention explains my behavior by providing reasons I have for engaging in this behavior. Either way, behaviors cannot be explained by conventions unless the conventions exist; and conventions cannot provide me with (conscious) reasons for engaging in my behavior unless I know what they are. I argue that, far from causing behavior, conventions are the results of behavior: conventions exist, in the sense in which they may be said to exist at all, only retrospectively. Moreover, as natural language speakers, we are ever at best in the position of thinking we know what the conventions are. But thinking one is acting conventionally is not the same thing as acting conventionally. Claims about the role of convention in linguistic competence interestingly both mirror and differ from claims about the role of genes in evolutionary theory, as I briefly point out by way of conclusion.